Words and Photographs by Gero Lilleike
There’s nothing quite like rounding up a bunch of good friends and planning a trip into the wild, it’s one of the best travel moves in the book. When my long-time friend, Gavin, invited me to join his hiking party on the Otter Trail, I simply couldn’t decline, this was an opportunity of a lifetime, right down my alley.
With a bit of research, I soon realised that the Otter Trail was going to be something special, unlike anything I have ever done before. The Otter Trail is a five day, 42.5 km trail situated in the Tsitsikamma National Park, forming part of the Garden Route from the Storms River Mouth to Nature’s Valley. If you’re like me and don’t have significant hiking experience, planning and preparing for a five day hike can be tricky business and should be done thoroughly and thoughtfully.
In the days leading up to our big adventure, I had to decide how to fill my backpack, a task all on its own. A checklist goes a long way in ensuring that all the essential items, such as whisky, are not forgotten. Planning is a fine balance between taking what is needed and leaving out what’s not. The saying ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ applies as well as ‘you pack it, you carry it’. I failed to heed these warnings and the result was hellishly painful.
Our hiking party arrived at reception, faces beaming with excitement, itching to get this adventure underway when a large man with a heavy Afrikaans accent says, “the first part of the trail is closed due to rough sea conditions. We can get a ranger to give you a lift to the first camp”. Excitement instantly mutated into bitter disappointment and bleakness ensued. After a quiet word outside we decided to do what every self-respecting Otter hiker would do, go hike anyway, but not before placing a beer order for our fourth day, a wise move indeed.
Ngubu Huts, the first of four overnight huts was 4.8 km away. One by one, we disappeared into the wild and were soon surrounded by ancient Tsitsikamma forest, making a steady decent to the thundering sea below. From the rocky seashore we witnessed an angry sea lashing out all along the coast. After clambering over rocks for an hour we stumbled upon a surreal waterfall and the guys had an absolute blast jumping off the rocks into the cold water below. Well refreshed, we got back on the trail towards Ngubu. We arrived to find quaint huts tucked away in lush vegetation overlooking a magical sea view. Soon a fire was burning and we spent the afternoon sipping on fine whisky and watching 15ft surf bombard the coastline. The scenery was wondrous. We were in paradise and we couldn’t believe it.
The next morning I awoke to a throbbing whisky headache that disappeared fast at the thought of hiking another 7.9 km to Scott Huts. We set off in the blazing sun hiking through forest for most of the day, encountering two Puff Adders, Seagulls, Oystercatchers and a few clumsy Knysna Loeries along the way. This particular section of the Otter Trail is gruelling, with many steep inclines and declines for most of the way. It’s on these hills where planning counts. My backpack was insanely heavy and I felt more like a dying pack mule than a hiker, with sweat pouring off my chin, I hoofed it to Blue Bay where we stopped for a well deserved lunch on an isolated beach. The hills continued to wreak havoc on my body for the rest of the day, eventually arriving at Scott Huts completely bushed. Just beyond our doorstep, in all its glory, lay the Geelhoutbos River Mouth, a view that replenishes the weariest of bones. After a solid meal of two minute noodles and biltong, I turned in early to rest for the next day in the hills.
My eyes opened to the smell of fresh coffee on the fire and after breakfast I was ready to face up to the 7.7 km ahead of me. Thankfully my backpack was getting progressively lighter and walking became easier. Gavin and Craig decided to do some snorkelling, a nice way to have a break and enjoy the sea life flourishing in the clear rock pools. We harvested a few mussels and cooked them for lunch on the beach at the Elandsbos River Mouth, a prime spot to relax, swim and recharge. Two hours later, we crested a hill and stumbled upon Oakhurst Huts, nestled alongside the Lottering River Mouth, another spectacular view to lull us to sleep as we keenly anticipated the 13.8 km hike waiting for us on our fourth day.
With stiff legs and tender feet, we set off early to make it to the Bloukrans River on time for low tide. The even terrain allowed us to cover larger distances faster and by midday we reached the 10km mark at the Bloukrans River Mouth, the most dangerous river crossing on the Otter Trail. Crossing the Bloukrans River was easy and we settled for lunch on the rocks. We spent another two hours on the trail before reaching Andre Huts at the Klip River Mouth.
It wasn’t long before our camp erupted into pure elation as we spotted our beer runner swiftly making his way down the mountainside towards us. Within minutes we were sipping on the sweetest nectar in this neck of the woods with smiles beaming from ear to ear. We proceeded to construct a bonfire on the pebble beach and watched the sun set slowly over Plettenberg Bay in the distance, a beautiful ending to our last night in this amazing place.
The final stretch of the Otter Trail from Andre Huts to Nature’s Valley is only 6.8 km, winding through Fynbos, the trail is mostly level making it a reasonably easy hike. We arrived in Natures Valley in high spirit and decided to visit the only restaurant in town, The Nature’s Valley Restaurant & Pub for a tasty meal, some more beer and many more laughs.
The Otter Trail is considered one of the best trails in the world but due to its overwhelming popularity, the waiting list can be up to a year or more but is certainly well worth the wait. Our epic adventure was over and at least we would go home knowing that what we experienced was unfathomable. The magnificent scenery along this stretch of coast is simply unreal and makes you appreciate every second of your life. Do yourself a favour and book now, you won’t regret it.
For more information on the Otter Trail visit: http://sanparks.org.za/parks/garden_route/camps/storms_river/tourism/otter.php